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Uncommon Courtesy

By Russ Smith | Posted 4/27/2005

Isn’t it strange that while English, as practiced in the United States, is continually altered to spare (or empower) the feelings of citizens, the public behavior of those same people grows more loutish at the same pace?

The Washington Post’s George Will, in an April 21 op-ed column, gives several examples of the current “therapeutic culture,” which encourages the language’s debasement, and they’re far sillier than merely referring to an executive’s publicity chief as a “spokesperson,” even if it’s clear that the employee is either a man or woman. In Scottsdale, Ariz., the receptionist of the Unified School District is now called the “director of first impressions.” Also in that locale, school bus drivers are called “transporters of learners.”

Another hilarious snippet Will brings up, before discussing the new book One Nation Under Therapy, by American Enterprise Institute scholars Christina Hoff Sommers and Sally Satel, is the political incorrectness of red pens and pencils in U.S. classrooms. He cites an uptick in purple ink for grading, because, for instance, parents at a Connecticut school believe “red markings” are “stressful.”

Why? Beats me: As a student, a lousy grade or criticism from a teacher carried the same message no matter what the color of the scribbled comments was. When the former Johns Hopkins University professor John Barth wrote a brief note on a term paper saying it was extremely unlikely I’d have any success as a novelist, it was a stinging, if accurate, rebuke. I can’t remember what color the ink was.

(On the other hand, National Review editor Rich Lowry, in an April 19 column, torches the “chairperson” crowd by pointing fingers at liberals like journalist Josh Marshall who denigrate controversial Republican House Majority Leader Tom DeLay as “the bug man,” referring to the Texan’s former occupation. DeLay may or may not be corrupt, but the fact that he owned an extermination business, and provided jobs—as opposed to more socially acceptable Congressman who inherited money—isn’t cause for derision.)

Meanwhile, even as games like dodge ball are banned at some elementary schools because of perceived excessive competition and Christmas trees are barred so that non-Christians aren’t offended, this coddling hasn’t seemed to rub off on the public at large. I walk around downtown a lot, and it’s rare that 15 minutes pass without seeing some sort of altercation between motorists on the street, whether it’s someone giving another driver the finger or an exchange of obscenities for the most minor infraction.

Americans are simply ruder these days. The phrases “thank you,” “you’re welcome,” and “excuse me” have all but vanished.

Recently, my sons and I took in two O’s games at Camden Yards—both huge crowds because the Yankees and Red Sox were the opponents—and it was astonishing to see the level of boorish manners at the stadium. It’s worse than even last year because of the exponential increase of spectators yakking on their cell phones while others are trying to see Miguel Tejada at home plate. On April 20, as the O’s Bruce Chen and counterpart David Wells engaged in a classic pitcher’s duel—at least for five innings—there were at least five busybodies in our immediate area on the third base line, not only flashing their cells, but also standing up while the game was being played. Inevitably, this led to continual jeering—“Sit down! Take it outside,” and worse—from spectators who’d paid decent money to see the ball game.

I’ve reluctantly accepted that sports franchise owners, believing their customers have the attention span of mice, find it necessary to blast bad rock music in between innings, making it impossible to talk about the game with section neighbors. It’s still insulting that the electronic scoreboards instruct a fan when to cheer, but this perpetual motion during the actual game is far worse. One of the pleasures of attending a ball game in person is the different perspective it allows from watching it on television. But despite the kids, who still hope to catch a foul ball, I found myself thinking how much easier it’d be sitting in the easy chair and listening to Orioles commentator Jim Palmer analyze the contest on the tube.

All of this is a one-way street: The language gets dressed up to make people feel good about themselves, but the number of “gentlepersons” decreases at the same time. Pardon me, but that sucks.

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